I didn’t really ‘learn to run’ until I was a junior at San Diego State University, running the streets around the University. I started running with a pair of Reebok High tops, running just a block or two. Then I would walk or run when I felt like it. No one was telling me what to where, how far to run, or what pace to run; none of that. I began listening to my body, letting the stresses of a packed school and work schedule drift to the recesses of my mind, and over the spring term of 1987 I was running for hours without even thinking about it. I would be enjoying my surroundings, the architecture of the homes, the birds, landscapes, my breathing - all of it…. And no, there wasn’t any music (this is way before ipods). I found my “zen” and I didn’t even know that term.
What happened? I spent years trying to run on someone else's terms (my true first running experience was in junior high. I was the person who would hide in the tule fog during the mile run just to avoid running two of the four laps of a mile). When I finally took time to do the sport on my terms, I started having fun. I learned to take the training in my own direction as well, and this direction took me back to the water.
Now, I know we all look for the “next big thing” in fitness, but maybe we have been walking by it every time we go into the gym or drop the kids at the pool so you can get your land based workout. Possibly, in this world of trying to pound out the troubles, stresses and all things life hands us, we instead need to dive in, unplug, and find your “zen” in another whole way.
Because water is a great neutralizer. What I mean is that the training environment is more receptive to any type of athlete, from the novice to an ultradistance athlete like me. We can all work out at the same time together if we choose. The reason for this is that neither can truly tell how hard each are working. With only your head above water (bodies submerged), we cannot look at each other for some type of comparison. Effort isn’t determined by the speed of which individuals are traveling through the water, rather it is based on how hard they work against the water. In some cases, the harder you work the slower you actually travel. Therefore, only the coach (and the individual) knows how hard they are working.
Without any judgemental comparison, the activity becomes a completely internalized fitness program lending itself to a zen-like feeling. When I train in the water, I am not distracted by other people's movements. Rather, I’m focused on my body and how I’m moving. In turn my mind opens up for greater clarity and focus. This is where the “zen” comes into play. I talk about this hyper focused attention in my book, as I see my athletes ‘lock in’ when I’m taking them through an intense workout. It is the same place athletes go on a long distance run when they get their “second wind.”
When I feel good on the trail, time elapses and great things happen. The same thing occurs in a water training session; it is my panacea. I find that running through a routine which is an hour long can feel like I only just started. Whether I run in a group or go solo, that same “zen” is achieved. Currently, my regular summer routine is to hit the pool on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. I wake up excited about having an hour totally for myself. Even when others join me, we chat for a bit, but then fall into our personal space. We enjoy the camaraderie of being there together - but we enjoy doing our own workouts as if we were running at different points on a trail.
So, rather than hitting the trails or pounding the pavement every day, consider going to your local pool (or use your backyard pool) and jump into the deep end to give water training a try. Maybe you too will find a new opportunity to unplug from the outside and plug into YOU.